Abraham Lincoln: The “Wrastling” President

If we were to ask you to list a few things about former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, it’s likely that many of you would mention things like his role in the abolition of slavery in the U.S., his assassination, his hat and beard (which incidentally the latter was grown because a little girl suggesting he’d get more votes that way), or the Gettysburg Address. But on top of all that, as with George Washington before him and the legendary Teddy Roosevelt after, it turns out Lincoln was also an exceptional, near unbeatable fighter who in his younger years would throw down with anyone who felt like they were man enough. In fact, he often found himself in such matches simply because of his reputation as an exceptional fighter and individuals wanting to test their mettle against him.

Standing at an imposing 6 feet 4 inches (1.93 meters) tall and weighing around 210 pounds (95 kg) with a lean, muscular build, Lincoln was a formidable figure in his prime, noted by his peers as being, to quote one contemporary, “unnaturally strong”. While the future President shied away from manual labour in his youth, being more drawn to books and poetry, his rather humble beginnings ensured he didn’t really have a choice in the matter in the end. For example, he apparently had an axe put in his hands at the age of 8 and was expected to do his part for his family with it. As a result, by the time he reached adulthood, Lincoln had matured into a fine specimen of man, gaining a reputation for his prodigious strength.

Speaking of axes, perhaps both because of his extremely long arms combined with that strength, Lincoln also was known for his skills with that implement of destruction, legend has it able to split a railroad tie with a single swing. Color us a little skeptical on that one, but whether he literally could or not, he did later acquire the nickname of “Rail Splitter” alluding to Lincoln’s early background in manual labour instead of a more academic or silver spooned’ past.

In any event, exactly when Honest Abe first began wrestling isn’t clear, though Ronald C. White, author of A. Lincoln: A Biography, notes that he, to quote, “did quite a bit of wrestling during the years he lived in Indiana from ages 9 to 21″. He also added that wrestling was something of a Lincoln family tradition, with Lincoln’s uncle being an elite practitioner of the sport.

As for one of Lincoln’s most famous fights, this occurred after he moved from Indiana to New Salem, Illinois in his early 20s. There he found work as a store clerk thanks in part to his sheer size and strength, which allowed him to effortlessly move stock that normally took two lesser men to comfortably lift, or occasionally the need of a ladder.

Lincoln was known to use his unnatural strength to his advantage for profit in other ways besides a job, on one occasion betting a later close friend Bill Greene a fur hat that he could drink a shot from a barrel of whisky by lifting the entire thing above his head and drinking straight from the bunghole. Greene felt this would be an impossible feat of strength, but one which Lincoln pulled off easily.

Displays of brute strength like this didn’t go unnoticed by Lincoln’s employer, Denton Offutt, who bragged to neighbors and anyone who would listen that Lincoln was not just the most intelligent man in the region, but also strong enough to beat up anyone in town- a claim that eventually piqued the interest of a local bully said to be able to “lick anybody” called Jack Armstrong.

While it’s often claimed Jack Armstrong was the title holding champion of the state for wrestling and thus, if he beat him, Lincoln would be the state champion, in fact there were no such organized titles at the time in Illinois and he more aptly simply had the reputation as the best fighter in the region, such as one account by Lincoln’s one-time law partner John T. Stuart, who stated Armstrong was the “champion of his clan”.

Speaking of that clan, Armstrong was the leader of a gang of unsavory individuals called The Clary’s Grove Boys, who naturally showed up for the fight after Armstrong challenged Lincoln and Lincoln accepted.

While accounts of this fight differ a bit depending on the teller, if you go back to a couple contemporary accounts of people who actually watched it, the general story seems to be that the two men met in a small clearing near the store under the watchful gaze of a small crowd, including Armstrong’s gang. Almost immediately after the match started it became clear that despite previously being considered the best fighter in the region, Armstrong was out of his depth, having no answer or counter to either Lincoln’s superior reach or strength.

Armstrong, sensing that there was little he could do and that he was close to defeat, allegedly tripped Lincoln, causing him to fall roughly to the ground- a dirty move that reportedly infuriated Lincoln. Whether this foul actually occurred, however, varies on the telling. For whatever it’s worth, in the biography Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, there is a supposed quote from Armstrong himself stating that he had indeed knocked Lincoln down, but, to quote him, “did not do it fairly.”

Whatever the case, what apparently did happen rather quickly in the fight was Lincoln falling for whatever reason, then the giant of a man springing to his feet, grasping Armstrong, and lifting him clean above his head. In his best Hulk Hogan impression, he then slammed Armstrong to the ground as hard as he could.

Upon seeing their leader crumple to the floor in a daze, the Clary’s Grove Boys surrounded Lincoln.

Lincoln’s aforementioned law partner John Stuart, then states, “when it was evident that Lincoln was getting the better of their champion the whole Band pitched in and gave Lincoln several blows which had no very salutary effect on the strength of his legs. Lincoln however took all this in perfect good humor and by laughing and joking displayed such an excellent disposition that he at once won their hearts and was invited to become one of the company.”

Another member of that company, a man by the name of Royal Armstrong Clary, would state of all this, “He won us by his bearing and boldness. Jack and [Lincoln] were the warmest friends…” from then on. (Nothing like manhandling and then slamming your fellow man to the ground to spur a little bromance.)

Another well known fight of Lincoln’s occurred earlier in his life when his family were the only people not invited to a double wedding involving two brothers called Rueben and Charles Grigsby, who were marrying a pair of sisters called Matilda and Elizabeth Hawkins. Hurt by this perceived slight at his family, Lincoln penned a sarcastic poem in which he accused the third Grigsby brother, William, of being gay. His reputation as a proper vagina loving man besmirched, William challenged Lincoln to put his hands all over him (aka wrestle).

Perhaps feeling bad about the whole thing or maybe just wanting to insult him more, Lincoln, who was a clear head taller than his challenger, suggested that this wouldn’t be fair to William and instead suggested William fight his step-brother, John D. Johnston who wasn’t near the fighter that Abe was. William accepted.

When the day arrived for the hotly anticipated showdown, as soon as the fight began, Grigsby quickly gained the upper hand and placed Johnston in a painful hold. It was at this point that, in a sequence of events that wouldn’t seem out of place at Wrestlemania, Lincoln barreled through the crowd, grabbed Grigsby from behind and suplexed him into the ground. The crowd, who were incensed and on the verge of a riot at this turn of events, closed in on Lincoln, who stood up straight and allegedly yelled (in what we can only assume was not meant as any sort of double entendre inviting his fellow man to other activities), “I’m the big buck of this lick. If any of you want to try it, come on and whet your horns”.

Incidentally, whether he actually said this or not is a matter of contention, and even has been attributed in a few cases to other of his fights. Whatever the case, it would appear once they closed on him, none were willing to actually attempt to fight the giant of man.

While it may seem wildly out of character to hear about Abraham Lincoln picking people up and manhandling them using his gigantic arms and freakish man-strength, this was far from out of character when reading about his youth from those who knew him at the time. And we have plenty of examples to back up this version of him. For example, when Lincoln ran for office in the Illinois General Assembly in 1832, at literally the first public speech he ever made in a small village called Pappsville, a fight broke out during which one of his supporters was struck and injured. Infuriated, Lincoln stepped down from the podium, briskly strode through the crowd, grabbed the attacker by the throat and pants, then, according to eyewitnesses, tossed him almost a dozen feet through the air.

All told it’s generally claimed that Lincoln was involved in around 300 fights in his youth and seemingly rather enjoyed the activity, as you would when you basically always won. And, of course, if you further lived in an era where a man’s standing in the sphere Lincoln grew up in was strongly tied to how well he could manhandle his fellow man.

Speaking of always winning, while presumably he must have lost at least some fights as a kid, as far as any accounts from friends and the like reveal, including Lincoln himself alluding to this fact, Lincoln only ever lost one fight- against a man called Lorenzo Dow Thompson in 1832. This occurred when Lincoln was with the Illinois Militia during the Native American rebellion near the Mississippi river that came to be known as the Black Hawk War.

Due to his leadership skills, popularity, and fearsome reputation, Lincoln was naturally voted to be his company’s commander and many an account later would note Lincoln’s men would basically do anything he said without question and were fiercely loyal to him. That said, though Lincoln’s company never saw any actual combat, they did ruffle a few feathers by stealing everything they could get their hands on, for which Lincoln was summarily reprimanded by his superiors.

As for what Lincoln got up to during the conflict, it’s recorded that he mostly spent his time with the militia honing his already impressive wrestling skills, often against “bullies” he felt were affecting morale.

This brings us to his fight with Mr. Thompson. After one particularly long day, Lincoln and his company tried to set up camp, only to be told that a rival company had already claimed the spot they’d chosen. After a few harsh words were exchanged, a deal was struck to settle the matter with a best of three wrestling match between each company’s best man.

On this one, Lincoln reportedly stated to one professor Risdon Moore in 1860,

Gentleman, I felt of Mr. Thompson, the St. Clair champion, and told my boys I could throw him, and they could bet what they pleased. You see, I had never been thrown, or dusted, as the phrase then was, and, I believe, Thompson said the same to the St. Clair boys, that they might bet their bottom dollar that he could down me. You may think a wrestle, or “wrastle,” as we called such contests of skill and strength, was a small matter, but I tell you the whole army was out to see it. We took our holds, his choice first, a side hold. I think realized from his grip for the first time that he was a powerful man and that i have no easy job. The struggle was a severe one, but after many passes and efforts he threw me. My boys yelled out “a dog fall,” which meant then a drawn battle, but I told my boys it was fair, and then said to Thompson, “now it’s your turn to go down,” as it was my hold then, Indian hug. We took our holds again and after the fiercest struggle of the kind that I ever had, he threw me again, almost as easily at my hold as at his own. My men raised another protest, but I again told them it was a fair down. Why, gentlemen, that man could throw a grizzly bear.

Incidentally, another account, this one by a close friend of Lincoln’s, the aforementioned “Slicky Bill Greene”, who witnessed the fight, Thompson overcame Lincoln the second time by, to quote him, getting “the crotch lock on Mr. Lincoln.” (We have no idea and those are probably some iffy words to google so we’re not going to). After getting “the crotch lock” on him, Lincoln, to quote Slicky Bill, “slid off”, which also isn’t a good thing to search in conjunction with “crotch lock”… But whatever that’s supposed to mean, in the process of sliding off the crotch lock of his fellow man, Thompson managed to grab Lincoln and throw him down as easy as church on Sunday.

While Lincoln’s temper cooled as he matured, he never lost his fighting spirit and even when he was President, much like Teddy Roosevelt would do later, Lincoln liked to challenge people to impromptu tests of strength. One of Lincoln’s favourite tricks on this front, which dated all the way back to his childhood, was to pick up a woodcutting axe and hold it “at arm’s length at the extremity of the [handle] with his thumb and forefinger”. He would apparently challenge whomever he was with to do the same and see who could hold it longer. As for Lincoln, he could apparently hold this pose for several minutes, a feat few could match.

All leading us to the alternate timeline in which Lincoln heard Mr. Booth enter his theater box and instead of getting shot in the back of the head, simply suplexed the would-be assassin and then shouted about how he was “the big buck of this lick”, calling for another challenger.

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